'Bushmen' on the brink: government persecution intensifies

'The government has cut off everything that enables us to survive, but we won't move because we were born here.' – Bushman who remains in the CKGR.

Two years after the Botswana government evicted hundreds of Gana and Gwi 'Bushmen' from their ancestral land, the authorities are now stepping up their persecution. They are bringing charges against a group of Bushmen who were arrested as they were hunting near the resettlement camp where the government has left them.

Hunting is the only alternative the Bushmen in the camps have to government handouts. In a recent meeting with UK parliamentarians in New Xade resettlement camp, many Bushmen made it clear that they are desperate to return to their land in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR), where they had lived for thousands of years. The government, however, forces the Bushmen to apply for permits if they wish to visit their relatives still in the Reserve (an impossibly bureaucratic procedure for most), and has forbidden them from taking in desperately needed supplies of water.

February 2004 marks the second anniversary of the eviction of the last 700 Gana and Gwi Bushmen and their neighbours the Bakgalagadi from their lands in the Reserve. In February 2002, after fifteen years of pressure during which most Bushmen had already been forced out, their last remaining water borehole was smashed and they were forced to dismantle their huts. Policemen and soldiers threatened to burn them in their homes if they refused. Despite the threats, several dozen Bushmen and Bakgalagadi refused to move and remain on their land, relying on the rain and underground tubers for water.

About 2,500 Bushmen and Bakgalagadi now live in two bleak resettlement camps which they call 'places of death'. Since the first evictions in 1997, observers have witnessed the steady disintegration of families as people succumb to alcoholism and depression.

On a recent visit, a Bushman told Survival, 'There's a lot of alcoholism and people are not eating. People go into the bars and drink beer so they can forget things. In CKGR people had fit minds and bodies. Here, people contracted by the government are bringing in AIDS. In our culture, we didn't know all these diseases.'People are bored and feel helpless, as they depend on the government for handouts of food – the barren land round the camps supports little hunting or gathering. One Bushman told Survival 'This makes us very sad. We feel powerless. We feel like bits of rubbish put in a waste bin.'

Many want to return to their land, and in spite of intense intimidation from the authorities, some have. Life inside the Reserve is harsh, as the Bushmen are banned from hunting, gathering and collecting firewood and, since the borehole was smashed, water is extremely scarce. But courage and resilience have enabled them to withstand constant pressure to move. One recently told Survival 'The government has cut the water but I will carry on here. I said to myself that I will live on my ancestors' land where they are buried and I'm still alive.'

The government maintains the relocations were voluntary, but in an embarrassing admission recently Botswana's Foreign Minister told a group of students in London, 'We put these people [the Bushmen]… where we want them to be.'

As soon as the Bushmen were evicted in 2002 the government carved up most of the Reserve in diamond exploration concessions; De Beers and BHP Billiton own most of them. De Beers has refused to condemn the forced removals of the Bushmen and in fact its managing director in Botswana has publicly welcomed them.

The Bushmen and Bakgalagadi have appealed, through Survival, for international support in their efforts to return to their ancestral land and live there without further harassment.